The First Butoh | Letters | Chicago Reader

The First Butoh 

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To the editors:

In Renaldo Migaldi's article on the appearance of butoh artist Natsu Nakajima at Randolph Street Gallery ["In Performance: dance of the empty dancer," July 9], he states that this marked the occasion of the first Japanese butoh performance in Chicago. This information was provided in Randolph Street Gallery's press material (I received the same packet of information). However, this is inaccurate information, as Eiko and Koma, a noted butoh performance team, have already appeared three times in Chicago at the now defunct MoMing Dance & Arts Center (September 12 to 13, 1980; December 18 to 20, 1981; and October 2 to 5, 1986). This Japanese husband-and-wife performance duo moved to the U.S. and have been instrumental in introducing American audiences to the art of butoh. It is a slap in the face to both their artistry to ignore their previous presence in Chicago, as well as to the visionary programming of MoMing. Randolph Street Gallery should do its homework before making grandiose "historical" statements.

Effie Mihopoulos

N. Sawyer

Renaldo Migaldi replies:

This is a matter on which people can disagree. With the above letter Mihopoulos enclosed back issues of her dance magazine Salome containing articles on Eiko and Koma, including her own review of their September 1980 MoMing performance. Here Mihopoulos writes that Eiko and Koma danced "with the Hijikata Company in '71." This is presumably a reference to Tatsumi Hijikata--generally credited, along with Kazuo Ohno, with having originated butoh in 1959. But no elaboration of this is offered in the review, nor was Mihopoulos able to provide any details when I telephoned her to ask about it--other than to add that Eiko and Koma had also studied with Ohno at some point in the past. "I think they consider him their primary teacher," she said, adding that she considered their piece Trilogy, performed at MoMing in 1981, to be "a textbook example of butoh."

A February 1983 Salome interview with Eiko and Koma--also conducted by Mihopoulos--rambles on for 15 pages without a single mention of Hijikata, Ohno, or any other artist commonly associated with the butoh discipline. At one point, Eiko does say, "What we do is not really dance." Asked by Mihopoulos what it is, Eiko replies, "I don't really know. I mean, it's partially theater, that's for sure . . . but it's also a dance, too." Neither here nor anywhere else in the interview does the word "butoh" come up, even though it was a term of growing currency in the dance world at that time.

Performance artist Kaja Overstreet, Randolph Street Gallery's project codirector for the Natsu Nakajima residency, says she is very much aware of Eiko and Koma's work, and even participated in one of their workshops at MoMing in 1980. Overstreet--who later spent two years in Tokyo as a member of Akaji Maro's butoh ensemble Dairakudakan and during that time also attended workshops of both Hijikata and Ohno--questions Mihopoulos's characterization of Eiko and Koma as "a noted butoh performance team."

"She may call them butoh, but that's her opinion," says Overstreet. "I do know that as recently as the mid-1980s Eiko and Koma were not making that claim, nor have I ever read anything where they have made that claim. A lot of their work is definitely influenced by butoh. They may have studied in workshops with Kazuo Ohno like everybody has, but I have not seen them listed in Tokyo Journal, Theater Dance Review, Dances Butoh, or any publication I am aware of that is specifically about butoh artists internationally. When I did workshops with Eiko and Koma at MoMing, they gave me names of butoh artists in Japan; but I asked numerous people in Japan about them and they'd never heard of them."

None of this necessarily makes Mihopoulos wrong to call Eiko and Koma "a noted butoh performance team." But it should at least be self-evident that working with a butoh ensemble at some early point in one's career does not automatically make one a "butoh artist" once and for all. After a while, this becomes a quibble over terminology. Arts talk is full of terms that are impossible to define precisely. At any rate, referring to Eiko and Koma as being "influenced by butoh" rather than as a "butoh performance team" hardly seems a put-down. I see no reason to believe that Randolph Street Gallery acted in bad faith in promoting Nakajima's residency and performance as the first of its kind in Chicago.

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